Embracing Feminism Young and Old

An interesting juxtaposition of events occurred, Saturday, and of course, it is precisely these juxtapositions that contextualize experiences, and in the best of times, help me learn to use them to be a better feminist.

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The beautiful Hope College campus (source: Flickr @Leo Herzog)

I went to Holland, MI (my hometown) to see a production of Vagina Monologues at Hope College. Hope is a well-regarded, albeit socially conservative liberal arts college, affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a mainline Protestant church. The Monologues are needed at Hope — when I was in high school, I attended special programming for high school students there, and later, I also took two Hope classes before I went to Michigan (Russian and Calculus II, an interesting combination). So it was never my “home,” but I have been thankful to be its guest many times — and irrespective of the form of its policies, I have felt pretty welcome when I have been there. Even back twenty years ago, in connecting with students, particularly in environmental action, I remember learning from young women at Hope their concerns about sexual assault and a general atmosphere in which women did not feel safe on their campus. And yet, the Monologues have played there for years, but this was the first time that Hope “allowed”* them to be performed on campus.

This year’s production was directed by the granddaughter of dear friends. That grandmother, herself, was involved in the production of the Monologues a generation before, and this presaged other intergenerational feminist moments the Sisters on stage shared. That made it deeply special, in a whole other way besides seeing the justice of this play finally airing on campus at Hope, these voices finding wind on those grounds. The production she directed, the art that she and her friends and colleagues created, was brilliant — it married Monologues both old and new** with the ferocity of young feminism in 2016. It was cutting, reflective, considerate, angry, funny, sad, joyful, hopeful, worried, and all gloriously at the same time.

After the play, Teri and I went out for drinks and had an amazing, intergenerational feminist dialogue. We got home a bit before one in the morning. Back to the juxtaposition I mentioned, the second event then happened, when I came home that night, by way of seeing posts on my Facebook timeline (I first heard of this from my fabulous and inspiring friend, Lizz Winstead). It was something I really expected never to see: Gloria Steinem letting Sisters down by saying things that were frightfully wrong. There are really hardly any people alive whom I respect like I respect Gloria Steinem, and prior to that night, I didn’t even consider such a moment possible.

You can watch this, for yourself, above (and also read Ms. Steinem’s subsequent apology). This is not a call out nor even a call in to Ms. Steinem, not primarily. I don’t feel at all qualified to do anything of the sort. This is also not the important conversation about idolizing Sisters in movement, and forgetting that they are human beings*****. My position on the Democratic primary (the young feminist comment occurred in the context of support for Bernie Sanders) remains that I will fight hard for the winner, and I appreciate the (usually) respectful dialogue and engagement in problem solving that is being generated by the Primary. I don’t even have much to say about the equally awful things said about trans women in the conversation.

All I want to do, at the moment, is talk about my experiences being around young feminists.

I have been engaging with young feminists a lot — locally, in informal and formal settings, and online — and what I saw from this fierce group of young Sisters (and from the men and others, as well, in the room) mirrors my experience with young feminism. Tumblr doesn’t really work for me, and although I have an account there, my primary online experience with feminists is Cuntry Living***. I’ve been learning there, from feminists half my age and even younger. To my delight. Seeing them, or hearing this production at Hope, leaves no doubt in my mind that the future of feminism (not that I’m passing my torch anytime soon) is in very good hands.

Young feminists are fiery. They are deeply, naturally, unaffectedly inclusive — approaching the very dream we all have, as represented by the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., that one day his children and “their” children would someday play, side by side. For young feminists play, side by side, and true play is always glorious. Young feminists are intersectional in a real, true way — they are learning, as I have been investing in learning, how to move beyond white intersectional feminism. For them, feminism is so much more clearly and artlessly a way they talk about the web of kyriarchical oppression, and I love that they are finding not just ways to ally and advocate for those who are oppressed outside of girls and women, without denying their womanhood or the concerns of our sex, but a way to make this their lifestyle. They are reflective and introspective, both when they are not, and when they are, loud and proud. They are so brave in melding their personal, lived experience, the fount of feminist authority for all of us, with the broader issues that affect us all.

There are challenges, to be sure, that young feminists face. One, I think, is that the young feminist movement, alongside the young queer movement, shows a tendency right now to engage in what, to me, seems like a very taxonomical, classification-oriented approach — this can be seen, for instance, in Tumblr graphs of sexualities or genders.

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Source: Tumblr @queerascat

What I want to, gently, say about this, is not that all these identity states are not important (they are!), or that advocacy around them is not important (it is — for instance, one of my ally priorities this year is to educate myself about asexual/aromantic people by way of being a better ally). My concern — gently — is that down the road of this kind of approach is the challenge that understanding feminism, or understanding queer theory is really not well suited to the approach of memorizing tables of information.

In young feminist discourse, this often means that, quite separately from content notes or trigger warnings (which have their own complicated politic), there is an intense classificatory urge, that I see in the discursive system (and in which I participate, myself), when I am around young feminists, to label or assign things — as transphobic, as biphobic, as heterocentric, as cispatriarchical, as sex-worker-exclusive, as classist, as ableist. Identifying our prejudices and biases, our internalized self-hatred, and problematic**** views and mindsets is so important. But sometimes, I see reticence to have in-depth conversation about the processes at work, beyond just applying the labels. This is where the danger lies — for this to be the end point and not the beginning point of feminist process. The process, in a way, mirrors how we use social technology — this blog post itself is tagged and categorized, and hashtags are a kind of taxonomy, and these kinds of taxonomical processes really underwrite much of the explosive capability of these tools to get activist information out in people’s hands. But, again, to me, and I say this gently, I think a Future Feminism (more on my thoughts on Future Feminism) that stops here (which young feminists have not done, but which will be a challenge down the way), that limits itself to classifications and tags and categories and markers, will not be enough, and although it will spread information among the educated like wildfire, it will not teach or nurture or build up subsequent generations of feminists.

These challenges mirror the challenges of every generation of feminism. In many ways, they are far milder — they are not the racism of the first wave, or the heterocentrism of the second wave, or the gender essentialism of the third wave (or wave 2b, you know, I’m trying not to be overly classificatory here). They are challenges nonetheless, and they belong to us all — not just young feminists as defined by chronological age.

I think the very discursive system in which we argue about whether “young feminism” or “old feminism” is better to be deeply problematic. To me, one of the most beautiful things about being a feminist woman is that I have so many mothers, so many sisters, and now, even so many daughters in movement. Like when I work with young children, my goal in support of this future generation and their future feminism is not to tell them what to dream, or even how to dream it, but to support them in acquiring the tools they need to push feminism farther, to dream their own dreams, and to bring those dreams into reality. That is a privilege — not in the acknowledging one’s privilege sense, but in sense of honor. I want them to be good feminists, but I do not presume to know what a good feminist is, nor do I presume that I measure up to that moniker. As a mother in movement, I expect to be uncool at times. When I was young, this was where we made our parents drop us off a block from school so that our friends wouldn’t see us kiss them goodbye. And although I engage in moments to teach what I can teach, I learn, also, and I truly do receive far more than I give.

To see our relationship as “old” feminists not this way, but as a form of seniority in movement, will be disastrous. We will not win tomorrow’s war with yesterday’s weapons. We will not build a sexism-free, an any-ism-free, future, with the tools of the patriarchy. This is my opinion — not my dogma: we cannot think hierarchically about young and old feminists. We have to be unafraid to learn more than we teach, as I have always done when I am around young feminists. We have to stop dictating who wears the mantle of authority if we wish to abolish mantles of authority and the privilege they confer. Put very simply, I will make no one free if I say to them, “You belong to me.”

I spoke with the grandmother of the director the next morning, about other things, and we touched on this issue, sharing our very positive experiences working with feminists younger than us (since she is a generation older than me, and I am a generation older than her granddaughter), how we are inspired and draw energy from our work alongside them, and how we work hard not to control but to nurture them. And that, ultimately, is what I want to say in response to Ms. Steinem’s comments. I just want to share my lived experience, a middle-aged woman who is proud to stand among young feminists.

Notes:
* We all ultimately are allowed and disallowed, although we are all ultimately freed not by others, but by ourselves. So whoever stamped the approval, those young women took their rights, for rights are not truly given.

** The Vagina Monologues is a living work, and over time, vaginas, or monologues, as you wish, have been added, and their voices lifted. Notably, the Monologues of today bring voice to Sisters who might not have been heard when the play was created, including trans women and ethnic minority Sisters.

*** I’d love to settle the score on how CL is represented in the press — I will do that another time, but for now, I will just say that my experience with CL so much differs from what is claimed about it, that when I read about it, it is barely recognizable to me.

**** By problematic, one typically means throwing someone else under a bus for one’s own sake.

***** It’s noteworthy here that I already crossed a threshold of disagreeing with something bell hooks said, likewise, not something I had expected myself to be doing.

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